In healthcare, you can’t buy scale. You have to build it, piece by piece" - Ameera Shah Patel, ED and CEO, Metropolis Healthcare

21st Dec 2010
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MetroPils Founder

An interview with Ameera Shah Patel, ED and CEO, Metropolis HealthcareIn a domain where the average age of a specialist is seldom less than 60, Ameera Shah Patel stands out. At 31, she’s the ED and CEO of Metropolis Healthcare, India’s leading diagnostic services chain. In a freewheeling chat with YourStory, Ameera speaks about how they managed to create a national chain of pathology labs and how the Metropolis brand is now going global.

If asked to describe Metropolis in about three sentences, what would you say?

Metropolis is India’s first and only multinational diagnostics chain. We provide all kinds of pathological services ranging from oncology to genetics through our 60 laboratories, across 4 countries. We were the ones who consolidated this business and we are now growing steadily, both in terms of presence and service commitment.

Where did the business idea for Metropolis originate from? Tell us about how you got involved.

My father, Dr. Sushil Shah was an entrepreneur and he had been running his own pathology laboratory for about 20 years. Right from the beginning, he was very clear about the direction that his startup would take – a national chain of laboratories with state-of-the-art facilities. When I was growing up, I used to spend a lot of time at his lab. During summer vacations, I used to help out at the front desk and sometimes, with labelling. I was very familiar with that world.

MetroPils
However, I did not study medicine. I went to the US to pursue a Business Management Degree in Finance and Management Information Systems at UT-Austin. I took up a job with Goldman Sachs right after and even worked with a couple of startups later on. At that point, my dad asked me whether I wanted to be an executive or an entrepreneur. I entered the business to find out the answer to his question. And I haven’t looked back ever since.

 

So, how did this idea called Metropolis come together?

(laughs) In fact, at that point of time (around 2000-2001), it wasn’t even called Metropolis. It was named after my father. Then, we decided that we needed a neutral tag that signified modernity. My mother, who’s also a doctor, came up with ‘Metropolis’ as a tribute to Mumbai. And the name stuck.

Metropolis is a labour of love. We had no frame of reference or model to replicate. We started afresh, used our common sense, learnt the hard way, brought people together and made it profitable for everyone. Looking back, I can clearly see that it was the relationships forged by my father that held us in good stead. In India, doctors have individual motivations. It was extremely hard to get them to ascribe to a common motive, especially when there was no success story to woo them with. But around 2002-2003, the business really started to take off and all of us felt vindicated.

As a woman entrepreneur, what problems did you face along the way?

In the beginning, it was crazy. Firstly, I wasn’t a doctor. Secondly, I was an extremely young woman. And to top it all, it was my father’s company. No one took me seriously, especially senior pathologists and older partners. But I took it in my stride and worked relentlessly. As time progressed, people started realising that I brought some sort of value to the table. I thought like a customer and helped improve the service standards. I started getting involved in day-to-day troubleshooting and this gave me the business understanding to evaluate potential and determine further course of action.

Today, at Metropolis, we do more than 4000 types of tests. I never tried to learn how to do all of these. Instead, I dedicated myself to understanding what patient concerns were and how we could deal with that better. I realised that it was also important to present yourself in such a way that people are open to your point of view. If I wore a business suit and threw a lot of business jargon in a meeting with senior pathologists, I’d get nowhere. In my personal experience, I’ve noticed that a saree, bonafide intent and lucid speech are a deadly combination.

Tell us about Metropolis’ partnerships and alliances. What about accreditation?

We work with a lot of people – doctors, hospitals, corporate firms, etc. Over the years, we’ve managed to strike 14 partnerships. Some of them were joint ventures. Some were acquisitions. We’ve learnt a lot from these partnerships. The last two years, especially, have been great. We’ve figured out what we are good at and that always helps. We’ve been accredited by the College of American Pathologists (CAP), which is one of the most respected organizations in this space.


You’re an entrepreneur who has worked in other sectors before Metropolis happened. What are the challenges peculiar to the domain of healthcare?

Essentially, healthcare is driven by individuals. And when that happens, there’s usually a great degree of variance in terms of the experience that is delivered. At Metropolis, I strived to put processes in place so that there is a degree of standardization and quality control. However, it’s important to note that healthcare is a sensitive topic and therefore, all processes need to have a personal touch. I don’t know if it’s a challenge peculiar to my domain. But it’s definitely one of the biggest challenges.

Also, money can’t buy you scale here. You have to build it piece by piece. And that takes time. We’ve been happy with our rate of growth, though. And yes, manpower is a huge challenge. You’d be surprised to know that we find it more difficult to get quality people in the non-technical side.

In addition, with respect to global ambitions, we suffer from a perception problem. India’s where the whole world comes to, when they need tech support. But that’s not the case with diagnostic services. But that’s also changing.

Metropolis is an Indian brand with a presence abroad. How is that working out?

Once our Indian operations started doing brisk business, we tried to look at other virgin markets. Some services were (and continue to be) cheaper in India. Keeping this in mind, we expanded. Currently, we have a presence in Srilanka, Seychelles, UAE, Thailand and South Africa. We have about 12 labs and 50 collection centres spread across these markets. We are looking at going into other African countries and also, a few Arab nations.

Have you managed to procure external funding?

Yes. Warburg Pincus, the leading global PE firm, has invested around $85 million in Metropolis.

Tell us about Metropolis’ future plans.

In the immediate future, we are opening five green-field labs before the end of this year and six more in the next year. We’re also opening two labs and two collection centres abroad. In the coming years, we intend to increase our presence in Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities. There are also a couple of pilots that are on. One is a rural diagnostics project in Maharashtra, Gujarat and Karnataka. The other is a dental care project that we’re testing at a couple of centres. Depending on the success of the pilots, we will take these projects forward.

What advice/tips would you give to young entrepreneurs in the healthcare domain? In your eyes, what are the gaps in the market?

I think there’s a lot of potential for a dental care chain. Or even an eye care chain. Another big ticket is cosmetic treatment. I would advise young entrepreneurs to start off with regional ambitions, before taking things pan-India. Health is a state-level issue and what works in one state might not work in another. Mindsets are different. So, spending some time learning the ropes is crucial. I had worked with a couple of startups before Metropolis happened. And I found the experience extremely enriching. We questioned everything and learnt so much. Hence, I’d ask people bitten by the startup bug to ask a lot of questions.

We at YourStory wish Ameera and Metropolis all the very best. Please do let us know about your thoughts and views on this story. You can email the author at sriram@yourstory.in.

Sriram Mohan | YourStory | 21st December 2010 | Bangalore

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